Poor You! (Literally.)

September 23, 2010 by  

Picture, if you will, my lawyer friend, Caitlin.  She’s a mid-level finance associate at one of New York’s biggest lawyer factories.  She’s been at the Big Law game long enough to be depressed on the good days and on the hunt for sturdy noose material on the bad days—which is to say most days.  But, as luck would have it, after months of furtive interviews, she finally got an offer a couple of weeks ago to go in house at a media company that most people I know, including me, would kill to work for.  So, when we went out to drinks last week to celebrate, I was expecting her to be ecstatic.  I was expecting her to have quit the firm within five minutes of getting the offer.  What I wasn’t expecting was three hours of listening to her waver, almost to the point of tears, about whether she should take the job.

I kept pressing her—what was it about this job offer that was making her so torn?  The (awesome, non-billable) hours?  The (cooler) people?  The (less mind-numbing) work?  Finally, after four Belvedere-tonics, she leaned across the table and lowered her voice.

“It’s just…I’m just afraid…”  She darted her eyes around and leaned in closer, lowering her eyes.

“I’m just afraid of what it’ll be like to feel…”  she whispered, “…poor.”

The offered salary of the new in-house gig?  $120,000 a year.

And now, a couple of weeks later, I’m still not sure what’s more disturbing: the fact that this friend—a worldly, educated, smart, able person—truly thinks that a single lawyer living in New York City on $120,000 could feel “poor” — or that fact that she’s absolutely right.

Now, if you’ve been spending much time in and around the legal interwebs lately, you’ve heard the controversial argument that earning $250K a year in this country makes you a lot of things—except “rich.” You either agree (Greetings to you, JD/MBA types living in Manhattan, Los Angeles and San Francisco!) or you vehemently, vehemently disagree and think that Elie anyone who thinks otherwise is a naïve, classist prick (Greetings to you…people living everywhere else.)

But the Caitlin question–the $120,000 Question—has nothing to do with the plush, glittering bar that you have to hit on your W-2 to feel rich; it has to do with the scabby, feces-strewn line that you have to stumble across in your mind to feel poor.  And, if you’re a young, professional type living in New York City today making $120,000 or less, you’ve probably got some scab residue on those scuffed shoes, my friend.

Think about it: What does feeling “poor” mean to you?  No, really, before you lunge for my throat, just step back for a second and ask yourself:  What would actually make you feel “poor”?  Worrying about how you’re going to pay your rent?  Living in a small, crappy apartment?  Being a perpetual renter instead of a buyer?  Feeling that you can’t afford to have kids?  Not being able to eat the kind of food you want on a regular basis?  Never taking vacations…at least not ones that involve planes?  Or, to step back even further, would it just be feeling that you can’t keep pace with your friends and neighbors?  Feeling that 90% of the people you come across on a daily basis, no matter what you may have in the bank, are way out of your financial league?

Well, if you’re a single lawyer living in New York City on $120,000 a year, there’s a good chance this describes you to a tee, for better or worse.

Now, fine, let’s clarify a couple of things:  I’m not saying that a person making $120,000 a year in New York is living on the so-called poverty line, collecting food stamps and selling blood and semen to pay for heat.  Living in poverty and feeling poor are not the same thing.  I’m also not saying that if someone who’s now making, say, $12,000 a year, suddenly made ten times that, that they would consider themselves poor.  I’m saying that feeling poor is on par with feeling, say, ugly or untalented: it’s relative.  And egalitarian posturing be damned, the feeling can be justified even when you’re making six figures—especially when you’re living in New York City.

Not convinced?  Let’s look at some actual numbers.

Again, we’re dealing with a single lawyer living in New York City making $120,000.  Let’s get taxes and other payroll-type fun out of the way and you’re bringing home around $5,100 a month in salary.  Now take out about $550 a month for fixed-cost utility-type expenses ($160 a month for cable/internet, $120 for phone(s), $180 for heat/electricity, $90 for a monthly Metrocard).  Now, student loans—because remember, we’re talking about a lawyer here.  Law school ain’t cheap, kids. Let’s use Caitlin as an example: After about three years of Big Law paychecks and paying down as much debt as she could swing every month, she still has about $80,000 of her original $180,000 in loans left to pay off.  Let’s have her keep on paying, say, $1000 a month on that (which, by the way, means she’ll still be on the hook for about the next decade or so).  Now we’ve got about $3,550 a month left to spend on rent, food and…everything else.  And here’s where the “poor” part comes in.

See, being not-homeless in New York City is expensive. Like, $2700 if you want to live by yourself in a semi-decent studio in a semi-decent building in a semi-decent neighborhood expensive—$3200, easy, if you want a small 1-bedroom with the same specs.  Now, please hold your commentary, Guy Who Lives In a Walk-Up Studio In Outer Brooklyn For $750 a Month.  When I say “New York City,” yes, I mean Manhattan.  Why?  Because, even if you won’t admit it to your friends back home in western Ohio, you know it as well as I do:  It’s just better.  It’s the heart of the city, it’s the heart of the action.  It’s why you move to New York.  It’s the fantasy.  And just like no one fantasizes about driving a 1983 Camry when they grow up, no one aspires to live in a tenement in an outer borough.  Now, sure, is the premium you pay to live in the same apartment in Manhattan that you could get in the Bronx for 1/4 the price soul-strangling and ridiculous?  Of course.  Would you still pay it if you could?  Hell, yes.  And that’s the point.  If you could.  Which, unless you have a fabled rent-controlled illegal sublet or  $30–$50 grand a year ready to spend on rent alone, you can’t.  And this “can’t” group includes our girl, Caitlin—who, based on the math in our example, now has the choice between (1) eating every day and living in an overpriced dump in a crappy part of town or (2) not eating every day and living in an overpriced dump in a slightly-less-crappy part of town.  Oh, and in our little hypo, she still hasn’t bought anything yet this month.

And just to drive it home, we have to remember that Caitlin, a finance lawyer, works with Big Law lawyers, bankers and hedge-fund types all day.  Almost all of her friends are Big Law lawyers or bankers or hedge-fund types.  Now, calm down, they’re not the famed super-rich of New York, the Gossip Girls or Bloombergs or anything even near it; but, even the ones who’ve only been working for a few years tend to make $120,000 in a matter of months, if not weeks.  And with the non-existent discretionary income that Caitlin will have left every month in our example so far, she won’t be able to eat at the same restaurants that they do, shop at the same stores, drink at the same bars, share the same social experiences.  After a while, she might even stop hanging out with them, because she’ll be tired of begging off before dinner, tired of being embarrassed that she can’t afford to keep up with them, even once in a while.  Even though she fully knows that she’s a smart, accomplished, self-sufficient person, she might to start to feel like she’s coming up short, financially, compared to 90% of the people she comes into contact with in her life—again, in her life.  At the very least, she might start to feel like she’s in a different financial league than almost everyone she knows.  In other words, she’ll start to feel poor.

Now, is she poor?  Well, not by any national standard, no.  But again, we’re not talking about national standards.  We’re not talking about objective metrics.   We’re not even talking about plain old vanilla envy—of just wishing that you have more than you have because you’ve seen someone else who does (because if we were, I challenge you to find literally one sane person in New York City—hell, in any city—who doesn’t fit that bill).  No, we’re talking about comparing yourself to your peers.  And when you’re a former Big Law lawyer in New York City making $120,000, most of those people will have more money than you do, plain and simple.   That doesn’t mean that you’re a failure, or a loser, or better or worse than them—or even that you’re unhappy.  It just means that you have less money to play with than they do right now.  And sooner or later, unless you’re the least self-aware person on the planet, you’re going to notice it.

So, if you’re reading this and making scads less than Caitlin’s $120,000 but you feel genuinely happy, satisfied and successful with your financial relationship to the world, good for you.  Truly.  You’re luckier than you may realize.  But don’t tear down Caitlin—or anyone else—for having the nerve to confess to feeling “poor,” even if she makes more money than you, or most Americans, will make this year.  That doesn’t make her a horrible person.  Or an idiot.  Or a classist.  That just makes her honest—and hardly alone.

An excerpt of this essay is also being published on everyone’s favorite legal tabloid, Above the Law.  Make sure to check it out here!

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78 Responses to “Poor You! (Literally.)”

  1. jane on September 25th, 2010 7:09 pm

    Cry me a fuckin’ river.

    Tell your friend (and you might as well tag along) to visit a third-world country (go off the beaten path–ie, stay away from touristy areas). Come back and see if she’s still feeling poor. Actually, don’t even bother crossing an ocean. Just go down to some parts of the Deep South.

  2. t_lhrh on September 25th, 2010 10:44 pm

    Yes, I will echo the sentiments of a lot of posters here: disgusting. What is wrong with you and your friends? The thing that pisses me off more than anything else about these articles is that there is little to no trace of self-awareness concerning the general economic situation from these authors and their ilk. Sure they toss a sentence here and there so that the anger their solipsism inflames in us level-headed types is assuaged a bit. But then they go back to their navel-gazing concerns that are quite out of touch with the real problems facing most other people, especially in this terrible economy.

    Elie and this blogger make the horrendously illogical premise that the prices they obsess about are to be taken as a given, that these are the prices everyone faces in Manhattan, and that one doesn’t have a choice about these at all. But they’re patently and absurdly wrong. Someone lower down the thread mentioned it perfectly: she lives in Manhattan in a small studio and in a nice neighborhood and pays $654/month in expenses less than what the original blogger bloviated on about as insurmountable obstacles. That discrepancy in expectations right there is pathetic.

    The second, very incorrect premise is that the only people you ever want to compare yourself to in New York are bankers and big law types. That’s the biggest piece of bull I’ve ever heard. There are people just as educated and just as worldly in Manhattan who are not bankers or big law types, and whose daily existence is even less extravagant than what can be gotten for $120K a year. Hang out with those people! Then your materialistic and shallow ass will feel so much better because you’re relatively better off than most of the people in your social circle! Voila, problem solved! An added bonus to doing this: your social life will, I guarantee, be leagues more interesting than if you just hung out with dried-out, one-dimensional bankers and lawyers.

  3. Phillipe on September 26th, 2010 7:19 am

    I personally would not make love to either of these two dames.

    Women should be soft and feminine.

    I fear that both of these 2 self-absorbed materialistic beeotches would not be very appreciative of what I have to offer them.

    My guess is that they would be whining about something before, during and after sex, instead of focusing on the act itself, and pleasing their partner.

    What kind of experience do they expect we think we will have with this type of behaviour?

    Which leads me to my perennial comment when I am having sex:

    “Shut your mouth and open your mouth!”

  4. Dan on September 27th, 2010 8:50 am

    This blog post is completely off base. I’m actually going to save it to show just how horrible educated and successful young people can be when it comes to budgeting and planning. $120K makes you feel “poor”!!!???

    First, your breakdown of the numbers is all wrong. Even a single person is probably taking home at least 65% of that figure, which equals $6,500 per month in disposable income.

    Let’s say that this person has a HUGE student loan bill, like I do. $6,500 minus $1K/mo. equals $5,500.

    If you don’t want to save/spend a decent amount, you shouldn’t spend more than $1,800/mo. on rent, preferably $1,500. And this is perfectly reasonable! You need to spend $3K/mo. on an apt.???!!!

    I found these in about 30sec. on Craigslist:
    Here is a nice studio in the W. 70’s for $1550 http://newyork.craigslist.org/mnh/fee/1975647738.html
    Fully renovated 1BR on UES for $1,650 http://newyork.craigslist.org/mnh/fee/1975633921.html

    So when you say that you need to spend $3K/mo., what you are saying is that you want to live in a top-of-the-line, fully renovated, high end apt.

    Alternatively, you could spend the SAME AMOUNT and BUY an apt. for $325K, if you saved a little down payment. For example, this lovely renovated unit on the UES: http://newyork.craigslist.org/mnh/reb/1975651827.html

    OK, so now you’re spending let’s say $1800 per month on housing, which leaves you $3,700. Phone, internet and cable really shouldn’t cost you more than $200, which is what I pay. Take out another $200 for other utilities and $100 on transportation (no cars for Manhattan folks), and you got $3,200/mo. to spend on whatever you want, or save.

    $3,200 is a lot of money to spend each month on your food and all non-essentials. Certainly, it is enough to feel “rich” enough that you don’t feel “poor.”

    Here is your budget. I invested about 10min. doing it for you. Your problem is now solved. It is crazy that someone so educated was not able to do this on her own. But it goes to show you that a complete lack of planning and budgeting makes someone who has plenty of spare cash into a person who suddenly feels “poor.”

    Good luck!

  5. Every Six Minutes on September 27th, 2010 10:24 am

    Well said, Anonymous on September 23rd, 2010 3:26 pm!

    Money was a topic I struggled with the most when I quit BigLaw. people have different financial situations and relationships to money and are going to react differently to it. Perspectives on money can change over time. Once-luxurious goods can quickly be taken for granted as ordinary necessities.

    The comments here about Caitlin are overly harsh.

  6. Anne on September 27th, 2010 11:09 am

    OH, PLEASE. You and your privileged friends wouldn’t know poor if it introduced itself to you and handed you a business card. If your dingbat moron of a friend chooses to keep working a soul-killing job so that she doesn’t have to figure out how to manage her finances or stop living profligately, then she deserves what she gets. You whiny-assed, clueless people make me sick.

  7. Michael on September 27th, 2010 11:46 am

    What a horrible, classist idiot.

    There is a little thing called a Train that can magically whisk you away to a little place called the suburbs. Here you can live like a the actual rich person you are instead of throwing your money down the toilet on the prestige of living in the oh so haloed Manhattan.

    When you can afford to make choices about your life you are not poor.

  8. Al on September 27th, 2010 2:09 pm

    The girl is maybe a little hyper and needs to read these posts to sort things out.

  9. njmndjnv on September 28th, 2010 6:01 pm

    Move to the burbs

  10. JHW on September 29th, 2010 11:38 am

    As a born and bred Manhattanite whose parents made well under $250K, all I can say is that your friend is an idiot.

  11. Anonymous on September 29th, 2010 1:01 pm

    Unfortunately, after reading this… I’m glad this Caitlin person is unhappy. If you’re making 120k and can still feel like you’re relatively poor, or whatever the dodge being presented here is, good. You’re getting exactly what you signed up for – a lifestyle that revolves around greed. Not to chuck morals around, but she’s basically selecting to be unhappy here, it’s not being imposed upon her. Sorry.

  12. tony on September 29th, 2010 2:44 pm

    Great article. It exactly describes the situation I faced when i quit the law firm and took a government job in DC. You’ll absolutely have to make some adjustments, but you can do it and feel happy (when you don’t have big unexpected expenses).

  13. Gabe on September 30th, 2010 5:12 pm

    I left what is now considered “Big Law” in 1989 because the economics are wrong and this blog confirms it. It is not about your salary but about building your net woth. I moved to the business side of the world in a non-law job and focused on building shareholder value, not my salary. The value of my equity based compensation is not tied to how many hours I work, but how effective I am at increasing the value of the company. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but on balance it has worked out more often than not and life has been much more enjoyable. We just completed an acquistion that will create 25 millionaires and after noting that an email from out outside counsel arrived in the middle of the night – again, my CFO wondered aloud why people would choose this line of work. I agreed….

  14. Lucy on October 17th, 2010 7:27 pm

    I realize that I’m coming (very) late to the discussion, but I’m finding it impossible to keep quiet here. My partner and I met in a top-20 law school, both graduated with honors in 2009, both passed the bar, and both took short-term public interest fellowships because jobs were so scarce. Well, our fellowships have ended, and jobs are still scarce.

    I’m in retail making $10/hr, and he’s working two jobs: days as a paralegal, and nights as a waiter. We live in a cheap apartment, eat in, and pay off debt as best as we can, and guess what? LIFE IS GOOD. The only time we really feel poor is when one of us has to go to the doctor, and we wonder how we’re going to pay for it. We can’t go out with our friends, but we can and do have them over for home-cooked meals. I wouldn’t trade places with Caitlin for anything!

  15. Bake on October 21st, 2010 11:01 am

    You know, it’s one thing to present some observations about how people assess their own income and status relative to that of their peers. That’s not a concept that people generally find difficult to accept, whether they make $120k or $12k or anything in between. And if that’s all you were doing, Legal Tease, I think your article wouldn’t have gotten as intensely negative a response from so many commenters.

    It’s completely another thing to present those observations about the subjective nature of self-assessment as though they’re at all relevant to whether your friend, and those who feel as she does, are truly entitled, selfish or lacking in perspective (all of which are implied by “classist”). To be sure, her environment, the company she keeps, and her lack of a broader perspective are all understandable *reasons* for her to feel the way she does. Which is to say, we understand that there’s a causal relationship (to some degree) between the reasons and the result.

    But a *reason* is not, and has never been, the same as an excuse. Recognizing WHY she feels the way she does is an important step in our understanding her emotions, but until she herself gains an appreciation for WHY she feels this way, she remains entitled, selfish and lacking in perspective; she remains “classist”. Yes, there are those who will call her horrible, idiotic, etc. — those insults are undeserved. But can’t I use the same type of argument to explain to you WHY those hurling insults feel the way they do? And would that make their positions reasonable, or merely understandable?

    The fact that someone truly believes certain expenses, luxuries and quality of life are reasonable baselines does not make them reasonable baselines. The fact that their belief is understandable likewise does not make it reasonable. The fact that those hurling insults have an understandable passionate anger which drives them to hurl insults doesn’t make what they say reasonable. In this midst of all these understandable, unreasonable positions, an objective assessment from a sociological, psychological and economic perspective must still conclude that your friend is entitled, selfish, lacking in perspective; her feelings and her behavior are “classist”. This may be seen as an insult but really, it’s a relatively mechanical assessment and not at all a condemnation on a personal level. If she can accept that “classist” is something associated with her approach, her behaviors, her ideology — if she can accept that it is NOT associated with her person, or whether she is “good” or “bad” — then she may find it a lot easier to deal with her fear of earning so much less money than she has come to believe is necessary.

    Finally, I would ask that you understand us in the way you want us to understand your friend. Yes, we are angry and passionate. You would be, too, if our situations were reversed. It’s easy to feel as though you understand a situation you’ve seen on TV or heard about on NPR. But nothing compares to experiencing it yourself, not even in the slightest. When you understand where our anger and our passion come from, I hope you might regret having addressed it as nothing more than mean-spiritedness.

  16. Emily Thomas on October 22nd, 2010 12:03 am

    This shit is dumb.

    Talk about money management skills that need to be reconsidered. I make Around $7000 a year, share a 2-bedroom apartment with a roommate, and manage to pay for gas and car insurance on top of cable, electric, water, food, and rent.

    Let me know when you snap back to reality, new-to-life.

  17. Anonymous on October 22nd, 2010 7:18 am

    No it is not dum, Emily. A woman needs money to pay the bills as well as to look and smell clean and fresh.

    If I go out with a woman, I want to know that she is well taken care of. The last thing any of needs is to get gassed out as we prepare for romance.

  18. Bake on October 23rd, 2010 10:39 am

    Oh, and I have one more thing to say. The sexist douchebaggery that’s been rampant in these comments is miles more obnoxious than a story about someone who hasn’t come to terms with their own entitlement. At least “Caitlin” has a legitimate reason to be clueless. The people suggesting it has anything to do with the fact that she’s a woman need to take a long walk off a short pier.

  19. Anonymous on October 27th, 2010 12:27 pm

    whatever haters. this article was totally accurate.

  20. quinny kinderwagen on December 4th, 2010 1:12 pm

    Hello. Fantastic position. I did not anticipate this on a Wednesday. This is a fantastic story. Thanks!

  21. Anonymous on December 5th, 2010 10:50 pm

    Let’s get some fresh material here. Enough with this stale crap! Fresh material, NOW! Get these broads to put a dime in between their knees and write something new.

  22. RE big law guy on February 15th, 2011 10:57 am

    I totally agree with this post. I make just over 200 and i feel poor. All my friends from undergrad (graduated from an ivy in 2002) caught the finance wave and work at banks and pe firms in the city. I had zero debt because my parents paid for school and I went straight into big law at a good firm, but I still cant even afford to go out and party with these guys on a regular basis. My hours are a lot better though (only 80, instead of 100 hours per week).

    One of my friends who works at a HF just bought an apartment in manhattan in cash last year. No mortgage.

  23. GT66 on March 13th, 2011 10:28 pm

    Lady, you and your friend sound like over-bearing, self-important, pretentious, pampered bores. Please stay married to your jobs and save us the exposure to your *tragic* lives.

  24. jack on March 14th, 2011 4:20 am

    Very tragic.

    I’m sure even multi-millionaires feel poor around their billionaire buddies.

    Was life on earth created solely for entitled American Women to have luxuries?

    Perhaps occasionally “feeling” poor would be an excellent opportunity to remind oneself about the truly poor. Think of it as a character building exercise. You are not the center of the universe.

  25. DB on March 16th, 2011 6:32 am

    Dudes, all broads always want to be pampered, and if a broad has a law degree and does not look like a bull moose, she thinks she is Gizzelle Bunchen.

    What these educated broads need to know is that guys don’t care about their law degree. Men don’t want loud, brassy broads. They want a broad that knows when to shut their mouth, and when to open their mouth (and not to talk).

    Once these broads figure that out, they won’t be roaming around in packs looking for men to pay attention to them and their law degrees.

  26. Anonymous on January 12th, 2014 1:21 pm

    I earn less than most of my friends, and I often feel quite a bit wealthier – because I have much more time, and that is true wealth to me.

  27. Anonymous on January 12th, 2014 1:39 pm

    Also fuckin hilarious trolls.

    “Will some man please volunteer to stuff his penis into this broad? That should stop all the whining.”
    “These entitled career girls all need a good old fashioned West Virginia boning to get them back into line.”
    “Women should be soft and feminine. I fear that both of these 2 self-absorbed materialistic beeotches would not be very appreciative of what I have to offer them.”
    “A woman needs money to pay the bills as well as to look and smell clean and fresh.”
    “Get these broads to put a dime in between their knees and write something new.”
    “Men don’t want loud, brassy broads. They want a broad that knows when to shut their mouth, and when to open their mouth (and not to talk).”

    Lol, what time machine did you all come out of?

  28. start making money on September 4th, 2014 1:42 am

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